by Melissa Tanner, Ph.D.
June has been designated Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Why devote a month to this cause? Today over 50 million people worldwide are living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). This figure is staggering, particularly when you consider the devastating impact of the disease on the affected individual, caregiver, and health care system. It is both personally heartbreaking and economically destructive. Despite the fact that dementia health care costs exceed those of cancer and heart disease combined, it receives a disproportionately low amount of research funding.
There are many factors that might contribute to this disparity. One such factor could be that, historically, ADRD were dismissed as a natural part of the aging process. Operating under the assumption that dementia symptoms were normal rather than pathological, pouring money into dementia research may have seemed like a fool’s errand, akin to chasing the proverbial fountain of youth. We now know that ADRD are distinct from normal age-related cognitive changes. Dementia is a set of symptoms that are progressive, irreversible, and significant enough to interfere with daily functioning. While our collective understanding of dementia is growing, the cause may be hurt by the fact that, depending on where they fall in the cognitive continuum, those suffering from dementia are limited in the extent to which they can advocate for themselves. Furthermore, those in a position to serve as advocates may feel a degree of separation from the disease, viewing it as something that will not affect them for many years. Even if personally connected to someone with dementia, those younger than 65 may feel a degree of invincibility, since onset prior to that age is relatively rare. An additional roadblock to the cause could be that, as of this writing, research and development of drug cures have been largely fruitless. At 99.6%, the Alzheimer's disease drug candidate failure rate is one of the highest, compared to 81% for cancer. This could serve as an argument for increased efforts toward finding a cure, but it could also lead to defeatism.
Whatever the reason, it is dangerous to deprioritize a disease with such a great emotional and economic impact. Doing so robs us of the chance to make proactive changes and lead initiatives that could result in prevention, minimization of collective impact, and discovery of a cure.
So what can you do this June to contribute to the cause?
- Raise Awareness. Show simple signs of solidarity. Wear purple, the color of the Alzheimer’s movement, and tell people the meaning behind it. Tweet about Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month using trending hashtags, such as #StopAlz and #EndAlzheimers.
- Raise funds. There are countless opportunities to take advantage of when contributing to finding a cure. This month, take part in The Longest Day fundraising event, which falls on the summer solstice, June 21st.
- Be an advocate. There are many groups focused on advocacy for brain health, women’s health, caregivers, and dementia. Becoming an advocate by joining forces with these organizations’ advocacy networks will provide you with access to regular updates and actionable steps you can take to raise awareness and influence policy.
- ENRICH® your brain. You are never too young to take control of your brain health. While it is true that dementia primarily impacts older adults, the habits that you adopt earlier in life determine your dementia risk. There are several brain healthy behaviors that have been shown to lower this risk. Evaluate your own level of risk and learn what behavioral changes you can make in order to lower it by using the ENRICH® Calculator.
- Assess yourself. If you have noticed any cognitive changes in yourself or a loved one, take action. Use a validated self-assessment of cognition, such as myMemCheck™, as a first step toward determining whether the changes are a part of the normal aging process or a potential sign of dementia. If the latter, take heart. While we do not have a disease-modifying cure at this time, we do have many useful assessments, approaches, and interventions that can be used to slow the rate of decline and help preserve autonomy and quality of life.
If we all join together, this June and beyond, we will find a cure.